It almost goes without saying: Residents of New Jersey communities impacted by the recent flash floods are feeling stressed.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reminds us that the weeks following a disaster can be the most stressful for disaster victims. Even the most resilient person may begin to feel stressed, insecure, and maybe even a little frightened. It is important that those affected by a disaster address their emotional needs as part of the recovery process.

Communities work together during the height of storms to fight a common threat. However, after the disaster-inflicted shock wears off, and the long and sometimes tedious process of recovery gets underway, and emotional responses may crop up. Responses like irritability, anger, fatigue, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, hyperactivity and sadness may surface, say mental health experts.

It is important to remember that these feelings are normal. Many individuals affected by flooding will experience at least one or more of these feelings. Not everyone reacts in the same way or heals at the same pace. However, by acknowledging and sharing these feelings, it is possible to feel better. Sharing tensions, fears, stress, and frustration, can bring wholeness and understanding. This is a time to give and get support from family and friends.

Signs of Stress

The most common symptoms of stress include irritability, anger, fatigue, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, nightmares, sadness, depression, headaches, nausea, hyperactivity, lack of concentration, and increased alcohol and drug abuse.

"Dealing with the aftermath of any disaster is extremely difficult," said FEMA Director James Lee Witt. "Feeling overwhelmed, even depressed is common. People need to know that acknowledging stress is the first step toward feeling better."

Some ways to cope with stress include:

  • Talking about your feelings with family, friends and neighbors. Sharing common experiences helps individuals deal with and overcome anxiety and feelings of helplessness.
  • Getting back into daily routines as soon as possible and trying to maintain good eating and sleeping habits.
  • Getting physical exercise each day, even if it is only going for an extended walk.
  • Giving themselves and their families an occasional break from cares, worries, and disaster-associated problems.
  • Realizing that not everyone reacts to stress in the same way or heals at the same pace.
  • Mental health experts say that disaster-related stress may surface days or even months following the event, and can affect children as well as adults.

Crisis counselors are often available through the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, other voluntary agencies, as well as churches and synagogues. Additional mental health information may be found on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Mental Health Services' website, or your county mental health agency.

Disasters Affect Kids Too

Disasters affect kids, too. Children are often frightened by nature's fury, separated from and worried about the future. The AFEMA for Kids@ web site was created two years ago to teach youngsters what disasters are, how to prepare for them and what to do when they strike.

Holly Harrington manages the site for FEMA. "During Hurricane Floyd, one child wrote that she knew the hurricane was coming and that she was really, really, really scared," said Harrington. "She was particularly upset because her parents weren't talking to her about the impending storm and that made her especially anxious about the situation."

Harrington said the FEMA for Kids site talks directly about the kids and includes six specific steps on how they can feel better. The steps include the suggestion that children write or draw pictures about what has happened as a way to express their concerns.

"The Web site can even post the artwork and drawings so the children can, in effect, communicate their feelings to other kids in similar circumstances," Harrington said.

In addition, the site includes information for parents about behaviors their children may exhibit and how to help them recovery emotionally from the trauma of a natural disaster.

"Children may suddenly act younger than they are or may appear stoic - not crying or expressing concern," said Harrington. "Parents can help their children by talking to them, keeping them close and even spoiling them just a bit for a little while. Children are particularly vulnerable to emotional stress after experiencing a disaster. They are not equipped with the same resources adults may have and often find it difficult to express their fears and anxieties. Pay attention if a child exhibits some of the following behaviors: excessive fear of the dark or of being alone, changes in eating or sleeping habits, persistent nightmares, separation anxiety, loss of trust in adults, feelings of guilt, and physical symptoms such as headaches, vomiting or fever.

Mental health experts say that there are many things parents or other caring adults can do to help children work through their emotions:

  • Encourage them to share their feelings and concerns.
  • Talk about what happened, giving children simple facts they can understand.
  • Reassure them with extra affection and explain that the family is safe and will stay together.
  • Maintain as many familiar routines as possible.
  • Hold children and hug them frequently.
  • Make bedtime a special moment of calm and comfort.
  • Maintain a normal routine, with time included for extra physical activities.
  • Alert children to possible after-effects of the crisis, such as funerals.
  • Add rituals that provide a sense of safety and belonging.
  • Ask children to help with chores, projects, or planning for the future.
  • Provide children with a sense of hope.
  • Other tips for identifying disaster-related stress in children, and for helping them cope, can be found on the FEMA For Kids web site: http://www.fema.gov/kids/tch_aft.htm.

Stress-Related Concerns for Older Adults

Older adults may be particularly vulnerable to negative feelings and reactions. It is particularly important they ask for support when it is needed.

Special considerations for older adults include some common feelings such as:

  • memories or feelings associated with prior losses
  • fear of dependency or lack of self-sufficiency
  • worry about limited financial resources and time to rebuild
  • fear of institutionalization
  • fear of a decline in health and limitations on mobility and ability to rebuild
  • worry about limited financial resources and time to rebuild
Some common reactions in older adults:
  • withdrawal and isolation even from family and friends
  • concealing the full extent of the disaster's impact
  • apathy-no longer caring to rebuild or start over
  • confusion and disorientation

Make an effect to reach out to older adults in your family or community who may be impacted by the disaster to insure they get the assistance and support they need in the post-disaster environment.

An activity that may help all family members is to plan for possible future emergencies. Knowing how to prepare for and react to a disaster not only saves lives, but can give peace of mind.

Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency